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  • Michele Brangwen

For My Mother: "A Note From Guantánamo" & Children At The Border


Lindsey McGill, Brooke Barnes & Kimberly Flanagin in "A Note From Guantánamo."


Hemingway believed that writers should keep some experiences inside until they had sufficient command of their craft to do the telling of these events justice. I have for so long wanted to write about the intensely personal reasons why I created the performance work "A Note From Guantánamo" but have not been able to even begin as the profundity of those reasons continues to overwhelm me. Now in light of recent events, the impetus for creating this work in 2007 is very much at the forefront of my mind.


Epigenetic studies of our genetic code have shown that childhood trauma can actually alter a person's DNA, and that the alteration can be passed on to one's descendants. It brings us to the question of what is the journey of a survivor of childhood trauma, and how does it effect their children.


In 2007, when Guantanamo was at its full capacity and there were plans to expand it, I got a letter from Amnesty International. It was from a nun who was a survivor or torture. She explained that it was something from which a human being could never recover. She wrote about how one could continue to live one's life, and be productive in society, but that the trauma would never leave you. I understood this so well because I am the child of a survivor of torture and this explanation echoed what I had come to know about my own mother's history. I knew the experience was always at the front of my mother's brain for her entire life, and I know that certain things triggered a reliving of the trauma, although it was so many years ago. She was in many ways a heroic example of someone who had overcome what she had been through by a sheer will to do good and to be kind. I celebrate her life and her amazing ability to be positive, but this doesn't take away the fact that her trauma was ever present in her mind and body.


When the newspapers ran summaries of what was going on at Guantánamo, and how many times some prisoners had been waterboarded, my Mom, came to me holding a copy of a newspaper article, her face contorted in horror. She said: "Tell me, how can one human being do this to another?" She knew the horror of it because she had been subjected to it herself as a young child in an orphanage, giving her a lifelong terror of water. It broke my heart because I had no answer for her.


At that time, I would wake up every morning and feel sick to my stomach. I tried to read the Red Cross reports on conditions at Guantánamo, but the descriptions were so horrendous I could not finish reading them. Was this really my country doing these unspeakable things to other human beings and trying to justify them? That's why I made "A Note From Guantánamo." I made it because I knew what was going on there was wrong on so many levels. And, I made it for my Mother.


The structure of "A Note From Guantánamo" was inspired by an uncredited photograph of a hand written note and a pair of earrings that appeared in FOTOFEST International's exhibition: Guantánamo. Pictures From Home. Questions Of Justice. The exhibition was curated by FOTOFEST Artistic Director Wendy Watriss, organized by Margot Herster, and contained images taken by lawyers trying to help detainees, some of whom had no involvement with terrorist organizations and no idea why they had been brought to Guantánamo. The note contained words of comfort from a detainee to a family member in Yemen, as written and carried across the ocean by a lawyer. I felt that the idea of a gift connecting these people across a great divide of both miles and freedom was an emotional thread that we - myself along with composer Brian Nelson and fimmaker Yunuen Perez Vertti - could create on the stage. The detainee was a character only seen on film; the dancers embodied the gift and its receiver; and the musicians represented all of us looking on and trying to understand.


Of course the ephemeral and abstract nature of my construct, which tried to humanize the detainees and their families, was ripe fodder for those needing it all to be simple: Was he one of the innocent ones, or was he a terrorist? Are you asking me to have sympathy for someone who may have harmed us? What we were asking was for people to think about the ramifications of detaining people indefinitely without due process or proof of guilt; about the violations of international laws designed to protect all of us. We wanted to put forth the idea that we cannot defend humanity by loosing our own humanity.


Now in 2018, it has now been six months that my Mother is no longer with us. In recent months I have woken up gasping from nightmares that something will trigger a reliving of her childhood trauma and I must prevent it. One could argue that since I'm her daughter and was very close to her, that it is simply empathy that I feel. The idea that we literally pass on trauma through our DNA to our descendants is still in its early stages, but as articles about epigentic studies appear, the results resonate with so many people. I loved my Mother with all my heart and the atrocities that she suffered as a small child shook me to my very soul. I had a well meaning person tell me to let it go, explaining that it was my mother's trauma not mine. My own physical body, however, tells me differently. In the months after loosing my mom I experienced a range of physical symptoms including intense anxiety, dizziness, night time disorders, and unreasonable fears triggered by every day things. It was as if I was suffering from the symptoms of PTSD. I feel it was because her childhood trauma was somehow very present in us both.


Now I see these images of children crying alone in captivity at the border and I see and feel my mother's heart breaking. Their faces haunt my thoughts, just like my mother's words from ten years ago did then: "How can one human being do this to another?"


I believe that just as a thing done well is done forever, an act of pure evil, which is what torture is under any circumstances, is also done forever. There are some things that one human being should never do to another. It is as simple, nonpolitical, and nonpartisan as that. Tearing away a frightened child from its parents is nothing less than torture. No matter what the outcome, this experience will stay with these families for all time, and be passed onto their children. I think about think how my Mom would feel if she knew a woman who reportedly enjoyed waterboarding, an act of violence and evil that no human being should do to another, was appointed to head the CIA. I wonder what she would say if she knew that children were being removed from loving parents as an act of state sponsored cruelty. We are all connected and maybe, regardless of eventual conclusions of epigentic theories, one person's trauma is everyone's trauma. For my sweet and amazing Mom, who suffered so much but at the same time taught me how to love and appreciate what I have in life, I tell you that these atrocities at the border will reverberate throughout many hearts and many lives for years to come. The net of sorrow will be cast far wider than anyone can imagine.



"A Note From Guantánamo," with choreography by Michele Brangwen, music by Brian Nelson, and film by Yunuen Perez Vertti premiered in July 2007 at the Performing Arts Center at Houston Community College Northwest. It was inspired by a photograph taken of a gift and a note that appeared in FOTOFEST International's exhibition: "Guantánamo. Pictures From home. Questions Of Justice." Subsequent performances included Barnevelder Theatre & the Performing arts Center in 2008. It was performed by Brooke Barnes, Lindsey McGill, Kimberly

Flanagin and Scarlett Barnes, dancers; Thomas Helton & Seth Paynter, musicians; Gopal Mohaparta, actor. Lighting Design by Kris Phelps.